Bart Ehrman, FFRF’s newest recipient of its Emperor Has No Clothes Award, is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He accepted the award May 2 at the Raleigh mini-convention. He writes “The Bart Ehrman Blog” and is author of many books, including Did Jesus Exist?, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, and his newest, How Jesus Became God. All three can be ordered at ffrf.org/shop/.
After Bart’s acceptance speech, artist and FFRF Lifetime Member Scott Burdick taped an in-depth interview, transcribed here:
BE: I’m Bart Ehrman. I identify as both a humanist and an agnostic.
SB: And are you openly agnostic?
BE: What do you mean, openly?
SB: Do people know it? Does your family know it?
BE: Am I in the closet? Aha! Yes, I’m quite openly agnostic. Everybody knows it.
SB: So writing books about it means you’re open?
BE: Well, if anybody reads my books they know I’m an agnostic, yeah.
SB: I find it interesting, having read most of your books, how you talk about that you weren’t always an agnostic.
BE: No, I started out as an evangelical Christian. I got interested in biblical studies because I was actually a fundamentalist as a late teenager. That got me interested in the bible. But as I developed my scholarship through graduate school, I realized that my beliefs about the bible were completely wrong, that the bible’s not some kind of inherent revelation from God. And so for years I’d become a liberal Christian. I still went to church, I still believed in God, but I didn’t believe the bible was the inspired word of God. But after many years of being a liberal Christian, I finally became an agnostic for reasons unrelated to my scholarship, reasons having to do with why there is suffering in the world, if there is a God who is in control? I, for years, had thought about it, had read what the biblical authors said, what theologians, philosophers said. I got to the point where I just didn’t believe it anymore. So I just acknowledged at one point then that I’m probably an agnostic, and that’s what I’ve been for maybe 15 or 16 years.
SB: Sounds like it was a very gradual process.
BE: It was. I’ve heard people say that I went from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic because of problems in the bible. That’s completely wrong. It was a very long process. I was a very open-minded liberal Christian for many, many years. It was really the problem of suffering that ended up creating the big issue for me that led me to acknowledge that I am an agnostic. It’s very interesting being an agnostic scholar of religion. I’ll begin by explaining what I myself mean, by this term that I’m using, that we all use all the time, the term “agnostic,” because over the last 18 months or so I’ve come to think it means something different from what I used to think. What I used to think was that agnostics and atheists were two degrees of the same thing. When I first declared myself agnostic, I was amazed at how militant both agnostics and atheists can be about their terms. Every agnostic I met thought that atheists were simply arrogant agnostics. And every atheist thought that every agnostic was simply a wimpy atheist. Two degrees of the same thing. When someone will say “I don’t know,” the other will say they do know. I’ve come to think that they are not two degrees of the same thing but are two different things. Agnosticism has to do with epistemology — what you know. Atheism has to do with belief — what you believe. I actually consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist. I am agnostic because if somebody says to me, is there a greater power in the universe? My response is, “How the hell would I know!? I don’t know!” So, I’m an agnostic. If somebody were to ask me, do you believe in the god of the bible? Do you believe in a god that interacts with the world, who intervenes in the world, who answers prayer? Do you believe in the supernatural divine being? No! I don’t believe it! So, I don’t believe, so I’m an atheist. But — I don’t know. So I’m an agnostic. And since I’m a scholar I prefer to emphasize knowledge rather than belief. And so, I tend to identify as an agnostic.
SB: Were there any issues with coming out to your family? Were they very religious?
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian, most of my family converted to evangelical Christianity in my wake and so, hah! When I left the Christian fold, they did not leave with me, and so they’re still there wondering where I went. SB: So, you’re an evangelical agnostic, I guess.
BE: When I was an evangelical Christian I believed in converting everyone to my point of view because I thought if you didn’t agree with me you were going to roast in hell. I was very evangelistic. I’m not evangelistic as an agnostic because it certainly doesn’t matter for somebody’s afterlife — because I don’t believe there is an afterlife. I’m not that interested in people converting to what I think. What I’m interested in is getting people to be more thoughtful about whatever they believe or don’t believe. So I’m not interested in converting, actually. SB: You talk in your books about how many people become ministers and learn these same facts from the bible but seem reluctant to share that with their congregations. Why do you think that is?
BE: Well, pastors learn the kind of material I teach in seminaries and divinity schools, if they go to a mainline denominational school. If they go to a fundamentalist seminary, of course, they don’t learn this, unless they learn it in order to attack it. An evangelical school wouldn’t teach this kind of material, but Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries teach this kind of material. And yes, when the people who go through that training become pastors, they tend not to tell their congregations. I think it’s because they’re afraid to make waves. They don’t think that people will be welcoming of it, they don’t think people are ready for it. There are some issues of job security. They want to keep their job, so they don’t want to ruffle too many feathers. But I think it’s too bad because churches have education programs, and it’s a pity that people aren’t getting educated. There are adult education programs in most churches. But they don’t actually get educated, they sit around and talk about other issues. They don’t talk about the things that most people are interested in, which is what does one think about the bible, what does one think about theology?
SB: Do you think though that they may feel that this may put too many doubts in people’s minds?
BE: Possibly. I think pastors tend not to be in the business of generating doubt. [As] professors at universities, that is our business. Our goal is to get people to think. But pastors don’t generally see that as their goal, and so they tend to shy away from these various issues that would cause problems for people. The result is they’ve got parishioners who really don’t know anything about what scholars are saying about materials that they are most interested in, which I think is a real pity.